A full decade before Zero launched its first electric motorcycle in 2008, essentially a 140-pound mountain bike, Lee Iacocca was already selling an electric-assisted bicycle. They’re everywhere today, but in 1998 the Ex-Ford and Chrysler automotive genius was at the bleeding edge of two-wheeled EV tech. He was so early to the e-mobility game that he may have actually been way too early. Here’s how it shook out.
With a seed of $100 million in investment capital, Iacocca kicked off EV Global, the company that would build the Ebike brand of electric-assist bicycles. Because battery tech was still brutally low-tech in the mid-to-late 1990s, the bikes were stunted by heavy lead acid batteries. The early bikes weighed as much as 75 pounds, using a 500-watt rear hub motor and a 36-volt 8 amp-hour battery that provided a range of about 20 miles at a top speed of 18 mph.
Oh, and they cost between $1,400 and $1800, depending on the model and accessories. Some of them even folded in half for storage.
In the words of someone who owns an EV Global EBike today:
“The bike is annoyingly slow, but makes up for it by being so comfortable; the seat is really cushy, but it also has your essentials like a horn, brake-actuated [tail light], [cruise] control, low speed vehicle VIN number, etc..... To be fair, it still gets me to work faster than a regular bike. They really spent money in all the wrong places on this thing; even the frame (inside the facia cover) is made of a ridiculous amount of steel tubes going in all directions. But it is great to have around when designing modern, more higher performance e-bikes with a good finish quality.”
So they were heavy, expensive, and slow. But as with all new tech, early adopters will help pay for the research and development of future tech. Today you can go buy an electric sport motorcycle that will run a sub-three-second 0-60 time. Or, if you’re looking for a commuter, there are hundreds of electric assist bikes that weigh half as much, go twice as fast, and cost less than the old EBike. But these new mobility options all owe some of their success to Iacocca’s Ebike.
Ultimately, it was the advancement of technology and being too far ahead of the curve that cost EV Global everything. In the early 2000s the company began transitioning some models to lithium batteries. There were allegedly five cases of battery overheating, and three cases of Ebikes catching on fire while charging. The technology wasn’t ready yet, and over 2000 bikes were recalled. By 2004 the company was out of the Ebike business.
While Iacocca might be best known as the father of the Mustang, or the progenitor of the K-car, or the guy that was in a commercial with Snoop Dogg that one time, depending on how old you are, I’ll remember him as an innovator. Not only for the work he did in cars, but also in Ebikes and butter.